With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the key players and position groups that could shape the division races in 2017. Today, we'll examine the biggest strengths of each team in the Big Ten West division. Check back Thursday for a look at each team's biggest weakness.
Illinois: The Illini are losing a ton of production off of last season's team, which only makes second-year coach Lovie Smith's job more difficult. Illinois will have to revamp its entire defensive line, as well as spots at middle linebacker and defensive back. Quarterback Wes Lunt is gone, and tailback Ke'Shawn Vaughn transferred to Vanderbilt. There are still nice offensive weapons for Illinois, led by running backs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin. They combined for 1,243 rushing yards and nine touchdowns last season. Quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. each gained valuable experience, combining to appear in nine games. Leading receiver Malik Turner also returns after he caught 48 passes for 712 yards with six touchdowns. Illinois fans must hope Mike Dudek can return from injuries and produce something similar to his remarkable freshman season in 2014. Don't forget that he set Illini freshman records for receiving yards (1,038) and receptions (76) and tied the touchdown record (six). He could provide this offense with a big boost.
Iowa: Running back Akrum Wadley's decision to return for his senior season was major news for the Hawkeyes. Wadley rushed for 1,081 yards with 10 touchdowns and will be the focal point in the backfield now that LeShun Daniels Jr. is gone. But Iowa should be equally excited about the offensive line group blocking for Wadley. The Hawkeyes' projected starting group consists of five players who each started at least seven games in 2016. Right guard Sean Welsh is the veteran of the group, having started 36 career games, and left tackle Boone Myers has 22 starts. Left guard Keegan Render, center James Daniels and right tackle Ike Boettger form the rest of the unit. Iowa will be breaking in a new starting quarterback to replace C.J. Beathard (presumably Nathan Stanley), so the Hawkeyes' offensive line strength will be even more valuable.
Minnesota: The Gophers' bread and butter on offense should once again be their tailback tandem of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. Smith, in particular, produced a breakout 2016 when he finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing yards (1,158) and second in touchdowns (16) behind only Penn State's Saquon Barkley. During Minnesota's four-game Big Ten winning streak last season, Smith rushed for at least 100 yards in each game and scored eight rushing touchdowns. Brooks missed three games last season but still finished with 650 yards rushing and five touchdowns. If both players can remain healthy, it's reasonable to think they could each eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau on the ground next season. Minnesota hasn't produced two 1,000-yard rushers in a season since 2005, when Laurence Maroney and Gary Russell pulled off the feat. Maroney teamed with Marion Barber for a pair of 1,000-yard seasons in 2003 and 2004.
Nebraska: The offense will feature plenty of new faces given the departures of quarterback Tommy Armstrong (2,180 passing yards), running back Terrell Newby (879 rushing yards with seven touchdowns) and wide receivers Brandon Reilly, Alonzo Moore and Jordan Westerkamp (79 combined catches and nine touchdowns). That means continuity on defense could be even more vital to Nebraska's success next season. In particular, Nebraska should have one of the better pass defenses in the Big Ten. The numbers didn't always reflect that in 2016, but the talent certainly will be there in 2017. Nebraska returns both of its starting cornerbacks with Chris Jones and Josh Kalu, who combined for 103 tackles, 21 pass breakups and four interceptions. Kieran Williams also returns at safety after leading the Cornhuskers with five interceptions. Safety Nathan Gerry's departure hurts, but Aaron Williams returns after recording 62 tackles and three interceptions. Antonio Reed is another solid option at safety. Nebraska's defensive backs will be loaded.
Northwestern: There's no question the Wildcats' offense will go only as far as quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson takes it. Thorson quietly became one of the better signal-callers in the Big Ten last season, when he ranked fourth in the league in passing yards per game (244.8) and tallied 22 touchdowns to nine interceptions. During Northwestern's midseason three-game winning streak that changed the team's fortunes, he threw nine touchdowns and one interception. Meanwhile, Jackson is coming off a year in which he averaged career highs for rushing yards (1,524), touchdowns (15) and yards per carry (5.1). Jackson needs 357 rushing yards to break Damien Anderson's career program record of 4,485 yards. If the Wildcats can develop more receiving weapons in place of Big Ten receiver of the year Austin Carr, this offense could be difficult to handle.
Purdue: Quarterback David Blough has a chance to produce a truly special final two seasons under offensive guru Jeff Brohm, who took over as Boilermakers coach this offseason. Blough led the Big Ten in passing yards per game last season (279.3) and threw 25 touchdowns. He also led the league with 21 interceptions, but Brohm can help him drastically reduce that number in his offense. Brohm spent the past three seasons as head coach at Western Kentucky, where the Hilltoppers averaged 44.6 points per game and his quarterbacks averaged 356.6 yards passing with 131 total touchdowns. Last season, Western Kentucky ranked fifth nationally in passing offense and first in scoring offense. Only six teams passed for more than Western Kentucky's 42 touchdowns. It remains to be seen how well Brohm's scheme will translate to a more physical Big Ten. But it sure will be fun watching him try with a quarterback as talented as Blough.
Wisconsin: The Badgers possess an embarrassment of riches at inside linebacker and should be even better at that position than they were in 2016. That's because Chris Orr and Jack Cichy return after suffering season-ending injuries. Orr sustained an ACL injury in the season opener, and Cichy suffered a torn pectoral muscle in late October. Now, the coaching staff will have to determine how many snaps to give to Cichy, Orr, T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. Edwards led the team in tackles for a second consecutive season. Cichy probably would have finished first in tackles had he remained healthy. And Connelly showed brilliant flashes, earning Big Ten co-defensive player of the week honors after registering 11 tackles with two pass breakups in an overtime win against Nebraska. Wisconsin's bigger challenge will be at outside linebacker, where it must fill the void left behind by T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. But with the defensive line returning intact, the Badgers' front seven will once again be a force in the Big Ten.